How Hollywood listened up

Patience, innovation paid off in Dolby's quest to make movies sound as good as they look

When Ray Dolby first walked into Elstree Studios, 14 miles north of London, to demonstrate his new noise-reduction technology to a team of sound mixers in the 1960s, his experiment didn’t quite work as planned.

“He went away with a flea in his ear,” recalls veteran sound mixer Ray Merrin, who would later mix a demo film for Dolby that launched the company’s Dolby Stereo Optical technology.

Despite this unsuccessful experiment, Dolby, and his then-sales manager Ioan Allen, didn’t give up on cracking the film world. Foreseeing market saturation in the music business, for which their noise-reduction systems were originally designed, the pair were keen to target talkies.

Even in the early ’70s, film soundtracks were mono and sound quality was not much better than when sound was first introduced to celluloid in 1929. Dolby’s original intention was simply to reduce hiss, but when the company started to look at the 35mm medium, it became obvious that the two mono optical soundtracks that sat side by side on the film could easily be used as a stereo pair. That was a huge bonus in addition to improving the sound quality.

“Ioan Allen said, ‘If we use one half for left and the other half from the right, we could get stereo from a mono soundtrack,’ which is what we did. That’s how stereo came into being,” says Merrin.

He recalls experimenting with a center track and out of phase left and right that made the sound appear to shoot out of the back speakers. “We got two tracks into four tracks,” says Merrin. “It was amazing work.”

The first commercial film shot with a Dolby Stereo Optical soundtrack was Ken Russell’s “Liztomania” in 1974, mixed by Merrin and Terry Rawlings. Merrin also remembers doing all the premixes on Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” in Dolby Stereo Optical, but the director, concerned about the format’s lack of support, chose not to release the film in stereo.

“The distributors at the time, the film companies, were very reluctant to see change,” says Allen, now senior VP of Dolby Labs. “There was a huge inertia to technology changes in the film industry.”

But the sound mixers pricked up their ears at the new technology, and through them, a handful of forward-thinking helmers began to come on board. In addition to Russell and Kubrick, Allen worked closely with Barbra Streisand’s production company, which released “A Star Is Born” with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack.

Russell’s rock opera “Tommy” (1975) was another early breakthrough. It received a special quintaphonic release that played at London’s Leicester Square, a showcase venue that was equipped with Dolby decoders to replay the improved format.

The film that made all the difference was “Star Wars.” The head of post-production at Samuel Goldwyn studios at that time was Don Rogers, who as part of a Motion Picture Assn. research council had been investigating ways to get stereo onto a composite track — seen as a cheaper and less obtrusive way of achieving stereo sound than stripping every reel of a 70mm print or the early stereophonic sound of Cinemascope. “Here came Dolby with a system that let you marry the negative to the composite. It was revolutionary,” says Rogers.

Goldwyn Studios was the first facility to install a recorder that would record the optical sound negative. George Lucas, hipped to the format by his producer Gary Kurtz, who’d previously met with Dolby and Allen in England, came there to use the technology.

“We had already done a film called ‘River Niger,’ which was the first American film that had a Dolby Optical track,” remember Rogers. “But ‘Star Wars’ was the big one. That was when Dolby really took off.”

Rogers recalled that in the wake of the success of 1977’s “Star Wars,” Dolby couldn’t manufacture the decoders fast enough. By the time “The Empire Strikes Back” was released in 1980, he estimates that at least two-thirds of the theaters in the U.S. and Canada had been equipped with Dolby Stereo.

“The big thing that resulted from ‘Star Wars’ was the theaters realized they’d all get the stereo print and it encouraged them to get the equipment,” says Allen. “The film stayed in the theaters for nine months, so even after a month or two of the release theater owners would decided to put it in.”

In 1977, Steven Spielberg released “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, and subsequently a string of big movies came out in the format, including Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” mixed by Merrin at Elstree Studios.

“That kind of backfired on us a little, because people thought Dolby was for big, loud science-fiction movies,” recalls Allen. “The next challenge was to make filmmakers realize that Dolby Stereo sound was good for all films, not only blockbusters.”

That came with Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” a subtle movie with fields of swishing corn as opposed to spaceships and clattering noises.

By the end of the ’70s, more and more films were being released with Dolby Stereo Optical, and by 1980 it was unusual for a film not to use it.